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Monday, April 9, 2012

Azure Bonds by Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb

Now this is really the beginning of the Forgotten Realms Novels.  You might remember my complaints about Darkwalker on Moonshae. It was a fairly shallow piece of princely do-goodery, that really said nothing about the Realms or their history.

Azure Bonds is everything I hoped for.  It has the beginnings of characters who were well known to me, long before I started reading the Realms, action, adventure, and humor.  If there was no romance, that's ok.  This time.  When I was a young kid, Dungeon & Dragons, attempted to compete with the already-past its prime moment of "Magic the Gathering" with a series of cards called "SpellFire".  Given that TSR, owned the rights to much of the famous Dungeons and Dragon's artwork, they had a ready supply of easily choppable art for these cards.  And they often kept characters more or less intact.  I had the Alias card, the lusty redhead above.  I always thought she was crazy sexy, and so I was curious about who this person was.  Well, now I know.

As a side note, I actually saw people playing Magic the Gathering a few weeks back, in a pizzeria on the Upper East Side.  The guy was actually showing off for a girl.  He had every single card in a thick, clear, possibly bullet proof, plastic container.  Which is crazy.  That's a "back away slowly" kind of dude.  I keep my Spellfire cards under lock and key.  If I showed them to my wife, she'd probably divorce me.
Let's get back to the Fantasy Five, something I've ignored in my ardor over the Malazan Book of the Fallen.

1) Character
2) Cliche
3) Scope
4) Magic
5) Theme

Azure Bonds is definitely a plot driven story.  But it has some interesting philosophical points, as any fantasy and science fiction novel must, that help define character.  I won't ruin it for anyone who wants to reread this classic, but the nature of the main character is a central dispute of the novel.  Regardless, the main character, a warrior woman named Alias, is an extremely likable character.  She's sarcasic and clever, but at the same time cares for her companions.  Her supporting adventurers are also extremely likable, and somewhat genre breaking, save for the Halfling Thief.  The wizard, though is a what Alias calls, "A Green Grocer" a merchant of magic, and not a true wizard with the long white hair, and the mysterious airs.  The halfling, though stereotypically a thief, is a fun and enjoyable character.  Mostly, characters are skin deep in Azure Bonds.  That said, we do learn some things about Alias, and her father, that provide some interesting character insights.  Unfortunately, I can't talk much about them without spoiling the book.  Of course, the best character, is Elminster, the very essence of quixotic wizard.  And though the character of Elminster is minor, and fairly cliched, you can't help but love the fiercely powerful, irascible old coot.

Azure Bonds takes place in the Dungeons & Dragons, rule-based system, and in the Forgotten Realms Universe, that comes with all of the Dungeons & Dragons cliches.  That said, Novak manages to make the magic and combat systems seem completely natural and not stilted or forced.  Which makes sense, I mean, the original 2nd Edition Rules were supposed to make combat realistic.  If it didn't involve so much THACO and Armor Class shenanigans, it wouldn't have been such a trying game.  Regardless, Forgotten Realms also made several cliche's of its own.  One of the mega villains, a fantastic creation called Moander, a dark God, who is literally a living wall of reanimated detritus, was used by the UbiSoft developers in the Heroes of Might and Magic series of video games.  Used in both Three and Four, here he is reimagined.  Of course, Kate Novak's Moander looks nothing like this undead piece of work, but the developers paid homage in many respects to both D&D, DragonLance, and Forgotten Realms. In terms of character cliche's there are relatively few.  The character of the halfling thief was fairly trite, but she's a non-essential character (though her actions are important). 

The scope of Azure Bonds provides a narrowness of focus that gives ample detail about the Forgotten Realms, while not being needlessly compartmentalized as Darkwalker was.  The action starts in the town of Suzail in the nation of Cormyr.  One thing that the Realms reminds us is that the writ of law is only as strong as the nation that rules.  And the Realms are relatively small fiefdoms, with various small time Kings.  There isn't the sense of international politics that there is in Jordan's or Martin's epics.  There are some political upheavals, but so far, things are pretty local.  Sometimes I like that.  It takes an awful lot of memory and concentration to understand the politics of dozens of fictional nations.  I know that Tear sold grain to Illian and Cairhien despite a trade embargo on the one, and civil war on the other.  That's pretty messed up.  I know about as much or more about those three nations as I do Iran, Iraq and Syria.  One thing that bothered me though, was the interplanar warfare that occurs later in the book.  The concept of planes is very neat, and it is central to Ed Greenwoods original concept of what the Realms were--but in this case, it seems like too much of a convenience for a writer to engineer an exciting ending.  I like that the Realms are fairly grounded.  The magic has limits, and even though there is a much more diverse panoply of creatures to choose from, they are all bounded by the rules of a game, making them less.  Boundaries are important in fantasy, you have to adhere to the rules you set.

I've covered this in some part.  Spells take time to cast, they use a variety of scrolls and components, they need to be memorized before each use, etc. etc.  The magic is covered by the Dungeons & Dragon's cliches, however, it still comes across as a novel, not the mechanical manifestation of spell casting in video games and in the old paper and pencil method.  But...there are times when the magic wielded does seem to completely bypass the rules altogether.  Given that Novak and Grubbs were writing when fantasy fiction was in its adolescence, this rookie mistake can be glossed over.  It's a genuinely entertaining story.

That Azure Bonds qualifies as fantasy fiction is unmistakable.  The themes are all there, companions, loyalty, friendship.  Likewise, the evil triumvirate, greed, pursuit of immortality, and the pursuit of power, plagues the supervillains in this novel.  One theme however, permeates the Realms in a way that other mega epics fail.  The stories of the realms, Azure included, reinvigorate the notion of the quest.  In all the big serialized fantasy worlds, there are a small set of characters who pursue a goal for thousands of pages.  The goals change, but they're all in pursuit of a larger purpose.  The Realms, unlike the world of DragonLance, a war torn world with heroes and an evil goddess, were designed to be episodic, referential without commanding a single story line.  This is a concept that has been lost by modern fantasy.  And it's sad.  Because the quest doesn't always have to be epic, it can sometimes be as hard as a paralyzed man learning to wiggle his toes, or a pair of skinny kids freeing their sister from a den of Orcs.

Overall, I encourage readers to dust off this 1988 special.

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